A History of English Art in the Middle Ages

By O. Elfrida Saunders | Go to book overview

Chapter I NORTHUMBRIAN ART OF THE SEVENTH AND EIGHTH CENTURIES

IT is at the close of the seventh century that England first achieves importance as an art-producing country. Art followed in the wake of Christianity, which by this time had become firmly established both in Northumbria and Kent. In order to understand the forces which directed the first efforts of English artists, it is necessary to pass briefly in review the course of early Christian art on the Continent.

During the first centuries of the Christian era the naturalistic types of figure and ornament which were current in Rome and Alexandria were accepted as their models by Christian as well as pagan artists, although the former often gave them a symbolical meaning which had not been originally present (e.g. the familiar shepherd with a lamb became the Good Shepherd). The style of this art was derived from Hellenistic, and ultimately from classical Greek sources, although it had become much diluted in the course of the centuries (examples are the fourth-century ceiling mosaic of Sta. Costanza at Rome, with its free vine ornament and natural figures, and the reliefs on early sarcophagi in the Lateran Museum at Rome).

After the fourth century, however, with the removal of the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, and the growth in importance of Eastern cities such as Antioch in Syria, Christian art became gradually orientalized. This is especially apparent in the hieratical treatment of the subjectmatter, and the conventionalization of ornament. In East Christian iconography Christ and the Virgin are surrounded with Oriental state and ceremony: the Magi veil their hands in token of respect as they present their gifts to the enthroned Madonna; Christ is no longer the beardless Apollo-

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